24 Jun COVID-19 variants always a threat to the unvaccinated
Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard plenty about new variants and how those variants continue to infect and sicken people across the globe at varying rates.
But what is a variant? How do they affect us? And what can we do to make sure we stay protected?
The basics of variants
A variant is the result when a virus – in this case the novel coronavirus– mutates in an effort to adapt to its environment. Mutations generally occur that allow the virus to more effectively move between/infect hosts (in this case humans, but viruses occur that infect all types of living creatures).
These mutations actually change a virus’s DNA and when enough of them occur within a virus, it is called a variant. In other words, the variant virus is similar to the original version but there are enough unique characteristics to mark it as different from the original. To put it in human terms, a variant is like a cover song: The words might all be the same, but the singer and the sound can be very different.
Virus mutation is expected and is constant. Some disappear or mutate to a version so harmless that they go unnoticed. Some, however, mutate into highly infectious and dangerous variants. When these variants are proven to have new biologic capabilities they are referred to as a “strain”.
It happens every year with different variations of the flu virus, which is why scientists and doctors are constantly monitoring health trends across the world – so that they can produce a flu vaccine that best responds to variants that are emerging across the globe.
Protection from variants of COVID-19
As with all viruses, the novel coronavirus has mutated into new variants. In fact, it has done so at an extraordinary pace since becoming a global pandemic.
Scientists and doctors have monitored all of these variants closely, and some have already marked themselves as more infectious and/or dangerous.
The good news is that studies show that COVID-19 vaccination offers protection against all known variants.
Even though some variants have proven adept at causing breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, those infections that do occur produce much less severe symptoms. So, staying on top of your COVID-19 vaccination will exponentially increase your body’s defense against the novel coronavirus – no matter the strains currently circulating the globe, our nation, or Central Savannah River Area (CSRA).
In fact, all three available vaccines in the U.S. – Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer/Bio-NTech – are considered highly effective against severe illness, hospitalization, and/or death.
Research also has shown that the COVID-19 vaccine offers greater protection from getting re-infected with COVID-19. So, even if you have had it in the past, getting vaccinated can help you from getting it – or severe reactions to the virus – again. In fact, a Mayo Clinic study showed that unvaccinated people who already had COVID-19 are more than twice as likely as fully vaccinated people to be reinfected with COVID-19.
Common COVID-19 variants
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has monitored four different variants (some of which have subvariants) that have made a significant impact in the United States. These variants are named for letters of the Greek alphabet and include Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron.
Alpha first appeared in Great Britain in November 2020 and soon became a dominant variant in the U.S. Some of its mutations made it both more infectious (the CDC estimated 30-50% more so than the original novel coronavirus) and more deadly than the original.
Beta followed soon thereafter and was also about 50% more contagious than the original coronavirus strain and was also linked to more hospitalizations and deaths.
Another mutation caused the Delta variant, which – including its sub-variants – was one of the most deadly and infectious strains known to date. For example, a study in Connecticut showed Delta to be 80-90% more transmissible than Alpha. Delta dominated in the summer of 2021 and was responsible in large part for the call for booster shots from officials and doctors.
In fact, one of Delta’s sub-strains, Delta AY.4.2, proved even more transmissible than Delta. However, this mutation was not judged as deadly or to cause more hospitalizations than its predecessor.
The most recent strain (and subvariants) to grab recognition was Omicron, known as BA.1. More transmissible than even Delta, it is, however, thought to cause less severe symptoms among those infected. Since its appearance as a dominant strain, BA.1. has been outpaced by subvariants including, BA.2 and BA.2.12.1
Again, vaccination proved a great defense against all known variants. Research shows that immunization against COVID-19, delivered an 84% effectiveness against the Delta variant and a 66% effectiveness against Omicron.
The CDC and World Health Organization are continuously monitoring the United States and the entire globe for new variants. And, in fact, many variants have been detected that pose no serious risk, including Gamma, Epsilon, Eta, Iota, Kappa, Mu, and Zeta, as well as the 1.617.3 variant. These variants either no longer exist in the U.S. or spread extremely slowly.
There is always the risk that a new variant will emerge from a virus that is still very new in human history. That is why it is important to listen to scientists and doctors who study these threats and alter vaccinations accordingly. As of now, current vaccinations provide clear and obvious defense against all strains present in the U.S., which is why doctors urge patients to receive vaccination.
Not only will vaccination help protect you against severe outcomes from infection, but it will also help entire communities achieve what scientists and doctors refer to as herd immunity – a status that will help ward off the development of new strains – as has occurred in the past with vaccination against infection from mumps and measles.